Parashat Mishpatim: Our Religious Resume
Parashat Mishpatim presents a long series of laws, involving mainly interpersonal relations. We find here, for example, the prohibition against speaking insensitively to a widow or orphan, the responsibility to compensate for damages which one caused, laws governing liability for damages to people’s possessions with which one is entrusted, and so on.
This Parasha begins with the words "Ve’ele Ha’mishpatim Asher Tasim Lifnehem" – "And these are the laws which you [Moshe] shall place before them." Rashi notes that this verse, unusually, begins with the letter "Vav" ("Ve-"), which means "and." As we were all taught in school, a new section should not begin with the conjunction "and."
Rashi explains that this letter is very significant, in that it connects the laws of Parashat Mishpatim with the laws mentioned at the end of the previous Parasha, Parashat Yitro – specifically, the Ten Commandments. The Torah connected these two Parashiyot with the letter "Vav," Rashi explains, to teach us that just as the Ten Commandments were pronounced at Sinai, the laws in Parashat Mishpatim were likewise transmitted to our ancestors at Mount Sinai.
If we would be asked what makes us "religious," to put together a "resume" affirming our religiosity, we would probably include things such as Shabbat observance, eating only kosher, adhering to the laws of Taharat Ha’mishpaha (family purity), Halachically-appropriate attire, and praying three times a day. Certainly, these are crucially important components of a religious life that must be included in this resume.
But there are many other things that are no less integral to a religious resume. Being courteous, honest, hard-working, speaking respectfully to all, especially to one’s spouse, children and other family members, giving charity, treating one’s employees properly, extending a helping hand to people in need – these are no less important parts of our religious resume than Shabbat, Kashrut, and praying with a Minyan.
It is told that somebody once approached Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) and asked him to explain the phenomenon of religious Jews who conduct their business affairs dishonestly and cheat on their taxes. He replied, "How do I explain this? The same way I explain how religious Jews could eat on Yom Kippur."
The person didn’t understand what the Rabbi meant. "Somebody who eats on Yom Kippur isn’t religious!" he said.
"And somebody who lies and cheats on his taxes isn’t religious," Rav Schwab said.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explained that this is the meaning of Rashi’s comment regarding the "Vav" at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim. The Torah wanted to emphasize to us that the laws in this Parasha, which deal with proper interpersonal relations, are no less integral to religion than our obligations to Hashem. The laws of Parashat Mishpatim were also given to us at Mount Sinai together with the rest of the Torah. Dealing with people kindly, honestly and courteously is no less of a religious obligation than Shabbat and Kashrut.
The Yahrtzheit of Rav Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), the founder of the Mussar movement, is 25 Shebat. Appropriately, this day is always around the time of the reading of Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah’s code of interpersonal conduct. Rav Yisrael Salanter very strongly emphasized the importance of our interpersonal obligations as an integral part of Torah life.
It is told that before his students went to bake Masot for Pesach at the factory, they approached him to ask which stringencies he felt they should observe. He replied, "The woman who works at the factory is a widow – remember to speak to her kindly and respectfully."
This was the most important thing for them to remember. There are numerous stringencies which are appropriate to observe when baking Masot for Pesach, but they are only stringencies, which are not required on the level of strict Torah law. Speaking respectfully to a widow, however, is an outright Torah obligation. This takes priority.
This is the lesson of the letter "Vav" at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim – that the way we deal with people is also part of Torah, and must be included in our religious resume.